Democrats propose changes in Bush's spy program

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WASHINGTON, Oct 9 (Reuters) The rights of Americans swept up in U.S. President George W Bush's warrantless domestic spying program would be given new safeguards under a bill introduced today by top Democratic lawmakers.

But civil liberties advocates complained the measure did not go far enough, while a top Republican warned it could backfire and help terrorists.

The White House had its own objections likely to trigger a fight. It wants retroactive immunity from lawsuits for US telecommunication companies that cooperated in the warrantless surveillance program begun after the September 11 attacks.

Democrats in the House of Representatives said they would not consider immunity until they get information specifying what the firms did.

''To give immunity at this point in time would be a blind immunity -- not knowing what, in fact, was done,'' said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat.

Ross Feinstein, a spokesman for the Director of National Intelligence, said: ''Going back and asking about documents is not helpful. ... We're trying to be forward thinking here.'' Democrats said they hoped to get the measure approved tomorrow by two committees, and then passed next week by the full House.

The Senate is drafting a similar measure. Both must agree on one bill before it can be sent to Bush to sign into law.

Written in response to a temporary measure the White House pushed through the Democratic-led Congress in August, the House bill would provide increased congressional and secret-court oversight to the expanded power of federal authorities to track suspected foreign enemy targets without court approval.

NEW RESTRICTIONS The new bill would enable the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court to issue one-year ''umbrella'' warrants to let the government intercept communications of foreign targets.

It would require a court order when monitoring a US citizen in the United States, but only if the person is a target. No order would be needed to listen in, however, if the person happened to be communicating with a foreign target.

In addition, the bill would require the FISA court to review targeting procedures. It would also mandate quarterly audits by the Justice Department on collected communications with the information provided to the FISA court and Congress.

''This legislation provides the intelligence community with strong tools to track down terrorists,'' said House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers, a chief sponsor of the measure. ''But it also protects civil liberties.'' US Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, ranking Republican on the committee, said, ''Rather than responding to the urgent needs of our intelligence community, Democrats are giving unprecedented constitutional protections to terrorists, spies and other enemies overseas.'' ''The bill ignores well-established practices governing the collection of foreign intelligence information and will enhance our enemies' ability to carry out deadly plots,'' Smith added.

Caroline Fredrickson, a director of the American Civil Liberties Union, complained the measure ''still allows for the US government to collect phone calls and e-mails from Americans without an individual warrant.'' Greg Nojeim of the Center for Democracy and Technology, a group dedicated to protecting privacy, said, ''It's a significant improvement over current law, but doesn't go far enough.'' Reuters TB VP0120

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